Chris Philpott's Film and Magic Blog
This page started out as a blog, but has become the place where I post some of the articles I've written for Magic magazine. Since there's no real name for that, I'll keep calling it a blog.
Jon Armstrong: Taking Charge in Life and On Set
by Chris Philpott (published in Magic Magazine February 2016).
“Restaurant gigs, a Disney theme park, a Las Vegas showroom,
The Magic Castle, television appearances, magic conventions, international
performances, and documentaries. That’s a lot for someone to achieve
before the age of 30. But his journey is just beginning. What does the future
hold for Jon Armstrong?”
–the conclusion of John Lovick’s cover story on Jon Armstrong, Genii, December, 2004.
In Marcie Hume’s wonderful upcoming documentary Magicians:
Life in the Impossible, Jon Armstrong goes through a list of his youthful
dreams: “I’ve accomplished every one of my goals.” He’s
won the Academy of Magical Arts Close Up Magician of the Year and been elected
Chairman of the Academy Board of Trustees; he’s even published a comic
book. But he doesn’t look happy. He’s sitting on a bed in a Motel
Six on a long lecture tour. His marriage has fallen apart, his health is worsening
and he’s fat.
Steve Valentine: his magic, his mentors and his rediscovery of the real secrets of magic
by Chris Philpott (published in Magic Magazine February 2014).
I’m watching Steve Valentine give a lecture to the junior members of the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. He’s funny, charming and incredibly informative – he peppers the lecture with references to great magicians of the past: Cy Endfield, Nate Leipzig, Ross Bertram, Paul Rosini, Stanley Collins and many more. It’s wonderful to see these kids, some of the best and brightest of the generation raised on Dan and Dave and one-trick DVDs, getting absolutely fried by 80-year old moves.
I’m sitting at the back of the room with Joan Lawton, a trustee of the Academy of Magical Arts and someone who’s been involved with the Castle since the beginning. She whispers to me, "I wonder what the old guys would have thought about Steve, guys like Vernon, Carlyle, Charlie Miller and Jay Ose. I think they would have been blown away.”
“Why do you think that?” (Read
Taking Another Look at Houdini's Movies
by Chris Philpott (published in Magic Magazine January 2012).
Houdini's movies are a fascinating but neglected part of his legacy. As I wrote in last month’s issue, now that most of the films are available on Netflix, these films are easier to see than ever and the chance to see him perform and soak up his persona makes a nice complement to reading about him.
The conventional wisdom about these movies is that the stories were just excuses for his escapes and that he was a very weak actor. Now maybe it's because I come at them as a filmmaker rather than a professional magician that I see them a little differently. Story-wise, why is it a problem that the films are excuses for escapes? We don't complain that action movies are just excuses for action scenes. The question is, are they a good excuse? A film like The Dark Knight is. Unfortunately, most of Houdini's movies are not. As for Houdini's acting, yes, it's awful in spots, but most of it is fairly good and there are moments of emotional honesty, power and charisma that hint that maybe, if things had gone a little differently, Houdini might have become a real movie star. (Read more...)
Thoughts on An Evening with Guimarães & DelGaudio
(Reprint of an article by Chris Philpott, published in the October 2012 issue of Magic
The white hot magic show here in Los Angeles this summer —
actually, this year, and I’ve heard more than one magic aficionado describe
it as the best show they’ve ever seen at the Magic Castle — is
hands-down An Evening with Guimarães & DelGaudio, which played
an encore run of four Tuesday nights in August and September. The inner circle
of the magic world was abuzz with its greatness. Ricky Jay came one night.
Mac King flew in between Vegas shows to see it; R. Paul Wilson flew in from
Britain. The first night I went to see it, I lined up for over an hour, sure
I’d get in, only to be crestfallen to see the last-minute pre-seating
of David Blaine and his posse. And his posse’s posse. (Read
(Photo image by Chris Philpott)
I have a question: is there such a thing as a tradition of magic we might call "serious" or "high art" and if so, what is it?
In most arts there is a traditional distinction between high art and popular art. Some examples: ballet vs. tap, symphonies vs. folk songs, literature vs. pulp fiction and comic books. While it was never an ironclad separation (for example, Shakespeare is both) the distinction is less popular now than ever. It reeks of elitism: the distinction was often used by the rich and educated classes to prove their superiority to the masses. Not that these works often weren't better, it's just that to the elite their superiority was self-evident -- even if they didn't know the first thing about music, they felt better about themselves by going to the opera.
Cinema, being born as the old class system was falling apart, never really bought the notion that that "high art" equaled "good art". Most cineastes revere Hollywood directors like Hitchcock and Scorsese right along side the giants of art film like Bergman and Kiarostami. But today, in cinema, the two traditions seem more muddled than ever. A director like Christopher Nolan can go back and forth between "arty" material like backwards narrative (Memento), dark psychological portraits (Insomnia) or dreams within dreams within dreams (Inception) to comic books (Batman) and no one thinks it's unusual.
Now to magic: it seems to me that while there's certainly
a lot of artistry in magic, there's no real tradition of "high art"
or anything we could call "art magic". Put another way, if Dai Vernon
was magic's John Ford, who is magic's Ingmar Bergman? Who is the slow, serious
artist who makes the audience meet him half way? (Read
100 Films: A Family Project
(Photo: It's images like this that drive men to do strange things... from The Scarlet Empress)
One evening, a little less than a year ago, I was flicking through the channels and came across Josef Von Sternberg’s 1934 masterpiece, The Scarlet Empress starring Marlene Dietrich. I hadn’t seen it since university but I got the same rush, the same thrill at watching all those crazy, overblown images. Wow. Just wow.
The first thought that came to me was that I wanted to show this to my kids. The second thought was, when the hell am I ever going to do that? Sure, everyone comes running when I rip the latest Hollywood blockbuster out of the Netflix envelope, but if I shouted, “Hey guys, who wants to see a 1934 film about intrigues in the 18th century Russian court that Robin Wood said has ‘a hyperrealist atmosphere of nightmare with its gargoyles, its grotesque figures twisted into agonized contortions, its enormous doors that require a half-dozen women to close or open, its dark spaces and ominous shadows created by the flickerings of innumerable candles, its skeleton presiding over the royal wedding banquet table.’ Whaddya say, guys? Guys?”
I realized they were never going to see this movie. I felt
a little sad about that. I wondered if I was just being silly – I mean,
you can’t do everything. But then I started to think about all the other
great movies they were going to miss. And there have been so many great
A Great Opener for 12-Year-Olds
(Photo: Magic Fans Out of Control Once Again)
My younger daughter asked me to do a magic show for her 12th birthday party – that’s pretty normal – she’s asked for a magic show most years that I remember.
A couple days before the show I was having chili burgers with a friend who’s a professional magician and he warned me that 12 is a tough age – it’s about the time that kids start to think they’re too old for magic shows. This reminded me of the shows I had done for my older daughter at about that age – one year her friends were falling over themselves with enthusiasm and the next they were so reserved. I figured it was me. Well, it was, but it wasn’t just me.
Imagine what’s going on in a tween’s mind when they sit down for a magic show. (Read more...)
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